It started, for Paula Hawkins, with the memory of a story and a walk along the canal near her London flat. It was 2018 and she was wandering around trying to think of ideas. Into the Water, her second novel – the second to be published under her own name, that is – had come out a year earlier, and she was still experiencing aftershocks from the extraordinary success of her first, The Girl on the Train. That novel, published in 2015, had sold a staggering 20m copies and been made into a film. Hawkins was mulling new options while she walked. “Peering into people’s houseboats – lovely, pretty ones with flower pots on the roof and solar panels, and also the ones that are sinking into the water and look as if nobody has touched them for years.” The thought she had was: “There could be anything in there.”

Hawkins is speaking to me via video from Edinburgh, where she spends half her time and sat out much of lockdown. The result of that walk three years ago was A Slow Fire Burning, set on and around the canal in north London and featuring a cast of characters all of whom, to one degree or another, are satisfyingly bent out of shape. There is Theo, a self-pitying middle-aged novelist, still involved with his snooty ex-wife, Carla. There is Miriam, occupant of one of the houseboats and bearer of the kind of malevolent energy that inclines people to cross the towpath to avoid her. There is poor Angela, wraith-like and destroyed by some event in her past. And there is Laura, the central character of the book, who grew out of a dim memory Hawkins had of reading about a girl with a traumatic brain injury. “Someone who’d been in an accident that led to personality changes,” she says. “And I thought about how that would make an interesting character in a book, because you’d have all these difficulties and challenges in your life, and yet you’d present to the world quite normally.” A dead body shows up, and off they go.

A Slow Fire Burning is a treat: utterly readable, moving in parts and saturated with the kind of localised detail that made The Girl on the Train so compelling. It’s also delivered unsentimentally and with an eye on the cliches of the genre; there is violence in her novels, but the female characters aren’t graphically tortured. Some of this is moral; Hawkins grew up watching horror movies – she didn’t like them, but her best friend did – and she was always cognisant of “that fetishisation of fear; that enjoyment of women being terrified that seems to go on and on and on”.

And it is partly aesthetic; lingering on pain is not her style. There is a briskness to her, both in person and on the page, that I associate, perhaps wrongly, with her upbringing in Zimbabwe. Hawkins, who is 48, moved to London with her family in 1989 when she was in her mid-teens, and the experience is dimly present in her preoccupations as a novelist. Suburban Harare in the 80s, she says, was provincial, parochial and, in the years after the war and independence from Britain, still incredibly reactionary. Her father, an academic and journalist, and her South African-born mother had both lived in Zimbabwe for most of their lives. As a place to grow up, it was simultaneously very privileged and stiflingly narrow, “almost like 50s America. Everyone was sexist and everyone smoked. When I came to England, I had very romantic ideas about how liberal and tolerant and right on everyone was going to be. And they were, relatively speaking. Just not as much as I thought.”

It wasn’t an easy landing. Hawkins’s novels are concerned with outsiders – the face at the window looking in – and, emotionally at least, she writes from experience. London was a relief, in some ways. “In Harare, you could never get anywhere without a car. In London, suddenly I could go out on the tube, do things; there was a freedom.” But it was also “scary and discombobulating” and she didn’t truly settle for years. The first thing she did was ditch her accent (“everybody assumed you were South African and nobody liked white South Africans in 1989”) but it was years until she made any good friends. “Not until I went to university, really. That’s not true; I did make friends, but none of them were English. I made friends with foreigners. I felt an outsider in the UK, but then I increasingly felt an outsider when I went back to Zimbabwe. That leaves you in no man’s land, to some degree.”

Hawkins’s parents eventually moved back, and now live in South Africa. Pre-pandemic, she saw them roughly once a year, a scarcity of contact that spared them a lot of anxiety when she was in her late 30s and floundering. After graduating from Oxford, she worked for years in London as a freelance financial journalist, and was spotted by Lizzy Kremer, an extremely enterprising agent who invited her to write a book. This was The Money Goddess, a nonfiction guide to personal finance published in 2007. From there, Kremer came up with the idea of Hawkins writing a novel under a pseudonym, a piece of romantic fiction based loosely around a recession-era theme. Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista was the first in a series of four novels written by Hawkins as Amy Silver, which did solid business but never broke through.

She wrote the first of those novels, she says now, from a pre-existing idea, which made for a tremendously useful writing experience. “They felt very separate from me. They weren’t my heart and soul. I didn’t love them.” This was a good exercise in professionalism and just keeping going, so that when she finally sat down to write The Girl on the Train, “I was a bit more prepared for how there is always a time in a novel when you think: ‘Oh my god, this isn’t going to happen.’ But you realise that you have to keep paddling. Land will appear. There’s always a very dark time when you sit at your desk and weep. Which you don’t have in journalism.”

Emily Blunt as Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train (2016). Photograph: Allstar/Dreamworks SKG

The Girl on the Train was Hawkins’s last hope; the final Silver novel hadn’t sold; her freelance career was stuttering. The turn to more dramatic material felt truer to what she wanted to write at a point when she had nothing to lose. That novel tells the story of Rachel, a woman in her early 30s who drinks too much, obsesses about her ex-boyfriend and thinks she witnesses a crime from the train. It’s an outline that doesn’t do justice to Hawkins’s storytelling. Anyone who has travelled on those suburban trains into London – drunk or otherwise – recognised the writer’s skill at evoking not only the fugue state one enters staring through the window, but the oddness of looking across the embankments into people’s lives. Blackout drinking was a good subject, too. “I was very struck with not remembering what you’d done last night, and the possibilities of that. And the way that messes with your sense of responsibility. If you can’t remember something, how guilty about it do you feel?”

In the weeks and months that followed the publication of the novel, there was no single moment when Hawkins understood what it would become. “It’s a series of moments where you go ‘Oh; oh god,’” she says. “At the beginning it was like, ‘The book is No 1, oh, wow.’” Then, she says, word came through that, “Oh, Reese Witherspoon read it” – always a good sign that a novel is tipping into a phenomenon. The momentum built, US sales started to go through the roof, the movie went into production and “it was genuinely thrilling. And mostly very happy. But yes, there was also a point when you think ‘Oh, this is all too much. It feels too big for me, being not a particularly extroverted person.’ It becomes a little bit frightening.”

The movie, which was released the following year, disappointed a lot of fans of the book. The London setting was replaced to odd effect with a train travelling through the upscale suburbs of New York. “Everyone was much richer and more gorgeous,” Hawkins remarks, and although she thought the film worked pretty well, she understood the complaints. “I get the whole thing about losing the gin and tonic in the can. And the much drabber houses.” The only vaguely British thing about the movie was Emily Blunt – “a very good egg. You can go to the pub with her and have a laugh.”

Hawkins’s life changed, but she didn’t lose her head. She knuckled down, per her training, and wrote another novel. The biggest benefit of having a hit that huge is that it buys you freedom to experiment with the next one. The drawback is that lots of readers and critics would prefer it if you simply repeated the first. This was her experience of publishing Into the Water, a murder mystery set in Northumberland, which was deemed by some critics a poor follow-up (it still sold 4m copies).

She recalls one critic saying of the book, “she should have just written The Girl on the Train 2, no one would’ve judged her for doing that.” She bursts out laughing. “And I was thinking ‘Yes they bloody would’ve done!’ And I didn’t want to anyway; I wasn’t interested in writing the same book again. I thought what I was doing was quite ambitious.” Into the Water is told from the perspective of 11 characters, “and OK, some people felt it didn’t work. But I’d rather be ambitious and fail than just do the same thing over and over. And how do you even do that? What are you going to do – is Rachel going to go into solving crimes? Develop a detective agency? It makes no sense to me.”

A Slow Fire Burning will be seen, rightly, as a return to form; a London book from an excellent writer on London, and a tender portrait of characters that stay in the mind long after you’ve finished reading. Hawkins is resigned to the fact that the Cinderella story of the first book will always outshine all the others and, while trying to remain divorced from the mania, is grateful for what it has brought her. She bought a nicer flat. She stayed in more expensive hotels when she travelled. And she bought a car – “but it’s electric. It’s not a Ferrari.”

A Slow Fire Burning is published by Doubleday (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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